Walking around her husband’s home village in the Near East, Diana* noticed that the locals were not treating Syrian children well—insulting them, exploiting them, or, at best, ignoring them. “These kids were with no shoes, no clothes during winter, and, at home, they have nothing to sleep on, and no covers…and no school, no one cares for them,” she stated.
One day, she stopped to talk to a 10 year-old girl. “I barely see my dad, and my mom, sometimes at night,” the girl told Diana. Still a child herself, this girl watched her four brothers all day long. When her mother returned in the evening, the girl was so exhausted from her adult responsibilities that they couldn’t spend time together.
“I want to talk to you about new parents, a new Father, and He really cares for you,” Diana replied. “He’s very, very rich. If you want to ask something from Him, what do you want?”
Excited, the girl answered, “I don’t want anything. I just want a pencil and a paper to draw and to write.”
“Okay, that’s easy.” From then on, Diana began meeting with that girl as well as children from a few other families, some who had no parents at all but were living with relatives, completely uncared for. They sat in the fields and under olive trees, and Diana told them stories every day. She also brought them some pencils and notebooks, taught them the alphabet, and showed them how to write their names. “It was amazing how much joy they had,” she said.
The village locals, however, including Diana’s extended family, scorned her for spending time with the Syrians. They mocked her as she walked through the streets, criticizing and belittling her. Diana began waking up early to avoid the insults. When she was running late, she changed her route.
Disheartened by the town’s response, Diana told her own kids, “Whenever you see [the Syrian kids] in the streets, you greet them. You play with them. They are brothers and sisters of Baba Yesua, Jesus.”
Then, after seeing a local child hit one of her Syrian kids, Diana went further. She not only reprimanded the offending youth but also talked to his father and grandmother. “It will never happen again,” she told them. “These kids are my own kids. If someone insults them or hits them, they are doing this to me personally. I will not accept this.”
Diana’s husband also championed her efforts to care for the Syrians. He supported her when others spurned her, he encouraged her to continue when she felt weak, and he talked to others in the community, including his family.
Because Diana’s husband held a respected position in the village, things began to change. Where there were insults, traces of respect emerged. Locals who had spurned Diana’s first requests for aid began bringing food and clothing of their own accord.
Diana and the children continued meeting in the fields, but towards winter, it began getting cold and dark. First, a Syrian woman offered them use of her one room apartment. After awhile, though, Diana felt they couldn’t impose on her only space to rest. A few days later, a local man suggested they meet in his olive press building instead.
The room’s condition—dark and dirty—shocked Diana on her first visit. But the children helped her clean the space and it became their own. Then one of her friends connected her with OM funding, and she purchased tables and chairs for the makeshift school.
One day, when the man lending the room saw Diana bringing snacks for the kids, he demanded rent for continued use of his building. “We don’t have enough to give you,” Diana responded. Two days later, when she and the children arrived for class, they found the room locked, all their supplies closed inside. “I was crying, and the kids saw me, and I was mad and shocked. I didn’t expect him to do that,” she remembered.
She argued with the man: “I’m sorry, but please can you give us our stuff? It belongs to some people, and it belongs to these kids, and you’re not taking that from them.” Without saying a word, the man opened the building, and Diana and the kids quickly gathered their supplies and left.
“Let’s just go home,” she told them. Then she saw their eyes. “They were so grateful that I took them to my house.”
For the next two weeks, Diana barely slept. Consumed with the kids’ situation, she began knocking on neighbours’ doors again, searching for a place to meet. She didn’t know the solution was next door.
One night when Diana returned home late, her brother-in-law, whose house neighboured hers, asked her if she wanted to use his garage. At the time, the structure only had a roof and was really dirty, but Diana instantly knew the offer came from God. The next day, she gathered the kids, and they began cleaning their new school.
In time, the school grew to a group of 63 children (soon to be 72) meeting not only on Diana’s balcony and in her brother’s garage, but also in the home of her other sister-in-law, a family member who had mocked Diana’s initial involvement with the Syrian youth. Both her sisters-in-law now help Diana teach the kids. Her mother-in-law, too, has substituted blessing for criticism, silencing others’ negativity as well.
For Diana’s own children, her work with the Syrian kids took some adjustment. Her oldest son approached her at first, upset that she was spending more time with the Syrians than with him. “These kids don’t have parents to take care of them. They have no beds to sleep in at night. They have no shoes. Nothing,” she told him. “We’re not here just to take care of ourselves. We are here for a short time, and whenever God puts people like this in front of us, this is for Him.”
Once her son understood her work, Diana said he started taking off his clothes so the school kids could have them. Her daughter, too, who loves dressing up, gave her most precious dress to a Syrian child. Together, her children offered their pencils, their books, and colouring supplies. They also helped the Syrian kids with crafts and writing when they started meeting in front of their house.
“It’s a big help for me, too,” Diana explained. “My house is peaceful, and my kids feel like they are…helping. They have a good relationship with [the Syrians].”
From the beginning, Diana said the process of starting a school for the Syrian children has been covered with "God’s fingerprints". “Every day there is a miracle. It touches you and it teaches you. I’m not blessing them; they are blessing me and my family.” In fact, the blessing has touched the entire town. “The whole atmosphere in the village…changed, and these kids and their families, too,” she added.
As for the Syrian children, “they are more happy; they are clean; they have gained their childhood again,” she described. They have also learnt about their Father Who loves them and provides for them. “Our aim is not only education. I want them to feel loved, taken care of, and I want them to start thinking [for themselves],” Diana said. “There are many opportunities to talk to the families and the kids. I feel like we are planting something, and I can see it flourishing.”
Mustafa*, a tough boy who lived in the mountains, seemed eager to recite a particular verse from Psalm 23 when the class was memorizing the passage. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because You are with me,” Diana remembered his favourite verse. One morning, she asked who wanted to thank God for something. Mustafa raised his hand.
“I want to confess something,” he announced. “At night, when my parents sent me to close the house of the goats, I was always afraid. I was thinking about it all day long. When night comes, my parents will ask me to go. But every night when I walk to close the door, I say, ‘When I walk in the valley of death, I’m not afraid because You’re with me.’ Now I am not afraid, and I will walk at night to close the goats.”
Amina*, a 12-year-old girl, used to spend all day caring for her seven brothers and sisters, ages 2 to 11, her only family a sick grandmother. Amina has completely changed, Diana said. Before, she was always shy, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes, and if requested to complete a task, she would “run to do it like a slave.”
“Look, you’re very precious,” Diana told Amina. “You’re not the slave of anyone. You’re a kid. You have lots of rights. You’re here to play, to dance, to learn, to enjoy yourself.”
Now, Amina speaks out loud. She defends herself, and she’s writing. Diana asked Amina what she wanted to become. She answered, “I want to become a teacher like you.”
Pray for the Holy Spirit to touch the lives of these Syrian refugee children, so that they would understand God’s love for them. Pray that their parents would continue to allow them to attend school. Pray this education would allow these children to gain a better future.
Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. A writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.
Credit: Nicole James · © 2016 OM International